by Howie Stalwick
Edgar Martinez, who hits baseballs as hard as Tonya Harding hits boyfriends, was eating lunch in the near-vacant Seattle Mariners clubhouse when something caught his eye on the television. Fifteen minutes later, Martinez had yet to take his eyes off the TV, and his lunch was colder than Newfoundland. Or, in baseball terms, colder than John Olerud at the plate last season.
And yet, the object of Martinez's admiration on the television screen was none other than John Olerud. Not the struggling Seattle Mariners veteran of 2003 and early this season, but the Toronto Blue Jays wunderkind of 1993.
"I look at that tape at least once a year," explains Olerud, who set career highs in virtually every statistical category during his magical 1993 season. "I always see stuff I'll try. I'll look at it and see how different it is than what I'm doing now. I'll try to make the adjustments."
Last year, Olerud's primary adjustment was learning how to routinely head back to the dugout after yet another fruitless at-bat. The main who hit .263 with 200 hits, 24 homers, 54 doubles and 107 RBIs in 1993 posted some of the worst numbers of his career last season -- .269 average, 145 hits, 10 homers, 35 doubles, 83 RBIs.
"I haven't come up with any good excuse," says Olerud, whose slow start this season (.250, one homer, eight RBIs through Monday) has mirrored that of most of his teammates. "It was a year where I just couldn't get on a roll or get in a groove. I was fighting things all year long.
"If you come up with a good excuse that makes sense to you," he says, "go ahead and write it, because I'll take any excuse I can get."
Actually, the low-key, soft-spoken Olerud would be the last person to ever make excuses. He's been that way all his life, from his childhood in Seattle and Bellevue to his national college player of the year season at Washington State (when he set school records with a .464 batting average and 15 pitching victories in 1988) to his near-fatal brain aneurysm the following winter. He's worn a batting helmet in the field ever since as a precaution.
Seven months after cheating death, Olerud made a last-minute decision to bypass his senior year at WSU to sign with Toronto. A couple of weeks later, he became one of a select few modern-day players to make his pro debut in the major leagues. He's never played a game in the minors, but he has played in two All-Star Games and won World Series championships with Toronto in 1992 and '93.
The Mariners have won 91 or more games every season since Olerud left the New York Mets to sign with Seattle as a free agent in 2000. However, he's still trying to bring a world championship to the city where he was born and spent his early childhood.
The lanky first baseman said he felt more comfortable at the plate during spring training than he did at any time last season, but a strong showing in exhibition games has not carried over into the regular season. New Seattle hitting coach Paul Molitor, a pending Hall of Famer who starred with Olerud on Toronto's 1993 world champions, has worked with Olerud on keeping his weight back at the plate.
"He's seen a few things," Olerud says.
It was "a few things" Olerud learned at a Christian athletes' seminar last winter that prompted him tentatively to change his original plan to retire after this season, even if the Mariners can no longer afford him. Olerud, 35, is making $7.7 million in the final year of his contract.
"You're gifted to play," reasons Olerud, who does not deny a certain fondness for those paychecks with all the zeroes.
Olerud, the married father of a 3-year-old daughter with birth defects ("She's making progress") and a 5-year-old son, has long expressed a desire to spend more time with his family. However, he has no firm plans for life after baseball, though he hopes to become more involved with his church and possibly coach high school baseball someday.
Could Olerud wind up coaching son Garrett in high school?
"He likes to hit, but he's not too interested in [fielding] right now," Olerud says with a smile. "He's a perfectionist -- he wants to be good right now.
"I tell him, 'If you practice and keep working hard, you'll get better.' He's not too interested in that."
Olerud, the 1993 American League batting champion, entered the season with a .297 career average; 2,079 hits; 239 homers; and 1,145 RBIs. Olerud says his season goals remain the same as always -- a .300 average, 20 home runs, 100 RBIs. He reached his goals in 2002 (.300-22-102) for the first time since 1993, then struggled at the plate like many of the Mariners last year.
Of course, it's hard to feel too much sympathy for a guy who just bought a house in the ritzy Seattle suburb of Medina (the Oleruds spend winters in suburban Phoenix). Medina, you see, is home to some computer nerd named Bill.
"Of course, he's on the water," Olerud says in mock dismay. "I'm not on the water."
Publication date: 05/06/04